In This Review

Neville Chamberlain. Vol. I: Pioneering and Reform, 1869-1929
Neville Chamberlain. Vol. I: Pioneering and Reform, 1869-1929
By David Dilks
Cambridge University Press, 1985, 645 pp

An English historian, armed with excellent sources, takes on a formidable task: to reconstruct Chamberlain's career fairly and in its entirety, in the context of Chamberlain's Unitarian family and of British politics, and thus complicate the memory that feckless appeasement has left behind. Chamberlain is shown as an able administrator, as director-general of national service in World War I, as lord mayor of Birmingham, and as minister of health in the 1920s. The record is revealing, as is the early, never easy relationship with Churchill, whom he admired and found utterly uncongenial, "mercurial." Neville labored under the shadow of his father, Joseph, and his stepbrother, Austen; labored honorably. At one point he spoke of "one of the most moving aspects of the war [being] that those who owed so little to their country, whose life had been one long struggle against adverse conditions, went forth to fight for her as eagerly . . . as those on whom she lavished every favor." The hard-bitten Birmingham businessman, after meeting with the coal-mine owners in 1925, noted: "They are not a prepossessing crowd . . . they are about the stupidest and most narrow-minded employers I know." Dilks has written a leisurely "life and times" of an exceedingly sober, dutiful, marginally gifted public servant.